Artists Hetty Haxworth and Kit Martin are working with the Aberdeen Burgh Records Project to help introduce primary school pupils in Scotland to art techniques and ideas that they might not otherwise try.
Inspired by the transcribed text in the Aberdeen Registers Online, Kit and Hetty have developed a pilot printmaking project to be conducted with a Primary 5 class in an Angus primary – when schools return, that is! If well received, there is scope to expand the activity to other interested schools (or other groups) in Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire.
Hetty and Kit have made instructional videos introducing a selection of stories and themes within the Aberdeen Registers Online, along with printmaking techniques. The videos then give step-by-step instruction for teacher and pupils to complete a piece of collaborative visual art. A package of materials will be sent to the school along with links to the videos. This will include images from medieval manuscripts as inspiration, including from the Aberdeen Bestiary.
The art techniques explored in the activities are block printing and monoprinting as well as collage, design and drawing. The finished piece will be a medieval ‘scroll’ measuring 180cm x 85cm that will illustrate three stories from the Aberdeen council registers and bordered by Middle Scots words taken from the Aberdeen Registers Online, to form a decorative edge.
The results could be displayed on the school wall, or in other potential locations such as the University or the City Archives. The pilot work has been supported by funding from the University of Aberdeen Development Trust.
We’re looking forward to the next steps for this exciting creative response to the Aberdeen burgh records!
The Kickstarter campaign for Strange Sickness wrapped up with an amazing 220 backers and 132% funding support, following a focused three-week run which ended a minute before midnight on 17 December 2020.
The generous response to the campaign brought backers from Scotland and around the world to support the project. Practical support and encouragement from Opportunity North East Code Base (ONE CodeBase) has been integral to the project.
Backing for the game exceeded the initial target and the first stretch goal. This means the game will include a prologue, to precede the main narrative section of play. Here the player will be introduced to Aberdeen and its inhabitants and hear reports of frightening illnesses from elsewhere in Scotland and overseas. Player decisions made in the prologue will affect the main narrative which follows.
There are eight days remaining in the Strange Sickness Kickstarter campaign . But what does ‘strange sickness’ mean, and why have we chosen it as the title for the game? In this blog post I’ll dive into some of the sources from Aberdeen in which the evocative term is used.
In her recent book, Karen Jillings noted the association of the term with syphilis in the early sixteenth century, called at the time the Great Pox. For instance, an entry from the Aberdeen council registers in 1507 refers to ‘the strange sickness of Naples’. The disease of Naples was another widely-used term for syphilis.
Earlier entries suggest the term ‘strange sickness’ had broader applicability. Certainly, one use of the term from 1497 seems to refer to a venereal disease, coming as it does on the same day as an entry outlining cruel punishments imposed on ‘licht’ (‘immoral’) women, probably referring to sex workers, stipulating that unless they refrained from ‘vicis and Syne of venere’ (‘vices and the sin of sexual indulgence’) they would be burned on the cheek with a hot iron key and banished from the town (click on links in footnotes to see orginal records and transcriptions).
However, an entry from 1498 suggests the term was used more generally, at least at this stage. It records an ordinance of the town for the inhabitants to close the gates at the back of their properties and build up their back walls in order to keep the town safe from ‘the pestilence and ale vthir Strang Seknes’ (‘the pestilence and all other strange sickness’). This refers to the layout of the town, with the backs of individual properties effectively making up the physical boundary of the town, as can still be seen in Gordon of Rothiemay’s map from 1661.
The phrasing here suggests pestilence (i.e. plague) was regarded as ‘strange sickness’ along with other types of disease. That plague was included as a type of strange sickness is further suggested by two entries from 1500. A statute issued on 15 August 1500 stated that people coming off a ship recently arrived from Danzig (today Gdansk) should be quarantined ‘for the sawite and weilfar of the town’ fra ale sthrange seknes’ (‘for the safety and welfare of the town from all strange sickness’). Another statute, from six days later (21 August 1500), imposed further measures related to the ship from Danzig ‘for the escheving of the plage of pestilence and safte of this tone’ (‘for the eschewing of the plague of pestilence and safety of this town’). Two entries from 1506 clearly include plague under the umbrella of ‘strange sickness’.
If ‘strange sickness’ was a general term, encompassing plague, syphilis and possibly other diseases, what does it tell us about their shared characteristics? ‘Sickness’ is clear enough, but strange is a little more ambiguous. In Older Scots ‘strange’ as an adjective could mean, much as does in modern English, unusual or unfamiliar. It could also mean exceptional and, more specifically, alien or foreign.
Certainly, in the late 1490s, syphilis was an unfamiliar disease, and Karen Jillings has argued that Aberdeen was ‘the first government body in the British Isles to tackle the Great Pox.’ Aberdonians may have been well aware of plague at this time, at least in theory, but it too is likely to have been unfamiliar in terms of personal experience for most, with no evidence that the disease had struck in the town for many generations. Both diseases could also have been regarded as ‘strange’ in the sense of foreign or alien, with the Aberdeen records referring to France as the source of syphilis and the fears of plague sparked by the arrival of a ship from Danzig. They both too could have been regarded as exceptional in their severity.
The usage ‘strange sickness’ in late-medieval Aberdeen may capture all of these meanings, and it speaks to the role of uncertainty in the human experience of disease and infection. Even after months of blanket media coverage, growing scientific evidence and widespread testing, our experience of Covid-19 often remains shrouded in uncertainty, even setting aside the proliferation of conspiracy theories and disinformation. Symptoms overlap with other conditions, making it hard without a test to know if you have it (and even tests can be inaccurate). When a case is confirmed, working out exactly how it was transmitted comes with even greater uncertainty. All of this has contributed to a strangely intangible sense of threat throughout much of 2020, although for many of those who have caught the virus, and their family, friends and carers, the threat has sadly become all too tangible.
When rumours swirled of the plague and the Great Pox in late-medieval Scotland – diseases which were far more deadly than even Covid-19 – fear and uncertainty must have been widespread. The term ‘strange sickness’ resonates with this atmosphere, which we intend to evoke, and allow players to navigate, in the game.
 Karen Jillings, An Urban History of the Plague: Socio-Economic, Political and Medical Impacts in a Scottish Community, 1500-1650 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), p. 79.
 Jillings, An Urban History of the Plague, p. 77.
Strange Sickness is a narrative game about fear, disease and community. It is also an encounter with history, through the Aberdeen council registers.
The player will take on the role of a member of Aberdeen’s burgh council in the late 1490s as a plague epidemic is taking hold in Scotland. You must decide how to protect the city against the arrival of the disease by land or sea. You navigate through the game by linking to different parts of a branching narrative, deciding when to seek further information and how to respond to the threat of plague. The narrative plays out in different ways, with different endings, based on these decisions.
The project, led by William Hepburn and Jackson Armstrong, is newly launched on Kickstarter. If the project meets its funding target, the creative team will be led by William, building upon his experience in Playing in the Archives and with Who Killed David Dun?. William will bring his skills as a historian together with game designer Katharine Neil (Astrologaster and Over the Alps) and illustrator Alana Bell (graduate of Gray’s School of Art, 2020).
Strange Sickness is a non-profit project. William and Jackson are giving their time for free. The funds raised in this campaign will recover the costs of creating the game, delivering the rewards, and ensuring Katharine and Alana’s time is funded.
All profits from sales of the game after the Kickstarter campaign will support the Lord Provost’s Charitable Trust, for as long as the Trust is fundraising for Aberdeen-based registered charities to help individuals, families and communities across the city experiencing severe financial hardship as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Kickstarter campaign has launched with a great start in its first few days, so far with some 120 backers and reaching 66% of its total goal. The campaign page for the project may be found at www.kickstarter.com.
It includes an introduction and fourteen chapters written by sixteen contributors. Drawing together an international team of historians, lawyers and historical sociolinguists, this volume investigates urban cultures of law in Scotland, with a special focus on Aberdeen and its rich civic archive, the Low Countries, Norway, Germany and Poland from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century.
It’s now available for purchase in all good bookshops as a paperback, hardback and ebook, and directly from the publisher website at www.routledge.com . Congratulations to all those who were involved in bringing this publication forward, from the symposia to today!
Sophia and Callum built the list over the summer months of 2020, supervised by Jackson Armstrong. The list was made primarily by identifying elections of provosts, bailies and sergeands which occurred annually at the Michaelmas Head Court, or ‘curia capitalis’, held around 29 September, usually in early October.
Some 756 names of officers who served in the civic administration have been included – many individual people holding office on more than one occasion.
The provost, or alderman, was the lead representative of the burgh. The provost was the administrative predecessor of today’s Lord Provost. The bailies had a range of duties, principally relating to justice and land. They presided over their own court, and oversaw the administration of land transactions. The sergeands (sometimes called bedels) were responsible for carrying out the execution of justice in the burgh courts, for instance in issuing summonses and collecting certain penalties. The electorate who chose these officials consisted of the burgesses of the town.
An exhaustive, final tally of all mentions of these officers in the ARO was not the intention in compiling this list. It is a working list – a first version which can be augmented and updated over time. There is not always an election recorded for each year in the ARO, and of course records for 1414-1433 have been missing for more than two centuries. Future work could include capturing additional references to these categories of officers in the corpus, and creating new lists of numerous other figures, such as deans of guild, council members, liners, ale tasters, meat apprisers, and more.
Dr Jackson Armstrong (Aberdeen) and Professor Dr Jörg Rogge (Mainz), joint principal investigators will be joined by Research Fellows:
Dr Wim Peters (Aberdeen/Mainz). Wim is a computational linguist with a background in Classical Languages and multilingual knowledge extraction and modelling. He has a PhD from the University of Sheffield at the Department of Computer Science in the areas of computational linguistics and AI. His main interest is the methodological application of natural language processing techniques in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, and the conceptual modelling of the knowledge extracted by means of the synergy between scholarly expertise and language technology. Wim’s conviction is that computational involvement in Digital Humanities is in strictly ancillary to the informational needs of domain experts. Only then Digital Humanities and Social Science researchers – a considerable part of whom still remain to be fully convinced of the advantages of the digital revolution for their research – will embrace language technology across the board, from manual inspection and annotation to fully automated analysis.
Dr William Hepburn (Aberdeen). William completed his PhD thesis on ‘The Household of James IV 1488-1513’ at the University of Glasgow. He recently worked as a Research Assistant on the Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers project (Leverhulme Trust, 2016-2019), which focused on Aberdeen’s fifteenth-century burgh registers.
Dr Regina Schäfer (Mainz). Regina is a Research Associate at the Department of Late Medieval History and Comparative Regional Studies at the JGU Mainz. Her research interests include nobility, social mobility and family in the late middle ages. She is especially interested in legal questions and participated in the edition of the court records of Ingelheim (“Die Ingelheimer Haderbücher”). In the FLAG project she will focus on the analysis of Augsburg.
Last evening ‘Songs of Medieval Aberdeen’ went to Holyrood, for a reception, presentations and performance of the new music written by Dr Claire Hawes and Aberdeen-based musicians Davy Cattanach and Paddy Buchanan. The three were joined by percussionist Craig Spink.
L-R: Senior Vice Principal Karl Leydecker, Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop, Dr Claire Hawes, Lewis Macdonald MSP
The performance, held within the Scottish Parliament’s Garden Lobby, was hosted by Lewis Macdonald MSP and introduced by Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop MSP. Senior Vice-Principal Professor Karl Leydecker spoke on behalf of the University of Aberdeen which is celebrating its 525th anniversary this year.
City Archivist Phil Astley transported council register volumes seven and eight from Aberdeen to Parliament, so that they could be displayed for guests. The volumes were open to the pages containing the 1505 ‘aquavite’ entry, and the 1499 entry mentioning ‘brokin folkis’. The latter inspired the musicians to write a song with that title.
Dr Claire Hawes addressing guests
Fiona Hyslop MSP addressing guests
The performance involved a set of five songs, each introduced by Dr Hawes who explained the creative process behind their composition.
It was an exciting evening, demonstrating on a national stage the rich creative work that has been derived from the Aberdeen burgh records!
View of Augsburg, from the Nuremburg Chronicle (Die Schedelsche Weltchronik) (1493).
This new joint project, entitled ‘Finance, law and the language of governmental practice in late medieval towns: Aberdeen and Augsburg in comparison‘ (FLAG), will examine how urban government was organised, executed and recorded in the late middle ages.
The project, which starts this month and runs for three years, has been awarded more than £500,000 together from the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) and the German Research Foundation (DFG). It will see the University of Aberdeen and Johannes Gutenberg University (JGU) Mainz work together to establish a broader European context for both digital resources.
The Augsburg Master Builder’s Ledgers cover 1320-1466 and are municipal financial records of period, whereas the Aberdeen Registers Online are primarily legal records. Thus the project will examine how both towns addressed matters of finance and law as they put government into practice. Particular attention is to be given to the variety of terminology used to record the exercise of government, and to identify similarity and difference between these towns which both used a mixture of Latin and vernacular languages in their administrative documentation.
Although Aberdeen and Augsburg were cities of quite different size and political context, those same differences are an advantage to the project, potentially bringing into relief what common features might be considered ‘urban’.
Like the Aberdeen Registers Online, Augsburg’s Ledgers have been transcribed and digitised in a previous project (which was led from Mainz), and they are now published online. Both digital editions are presented in the form of machine-readable XML data sets. This facilitates their comparison, and researchers in Mainz and Aberdeen will be exploring the opportunities and challenges in addressing these resources together, and investigating new techniques for automatic analysis to support historical investigation.
The find was made by Dr Claire Hawes during the transcription phase of the project when Claire was working through register volume eight.
The reference enriches our understanding of the early development of Scotch whisky, placing the apparatus for making aquavite in the renaissance burgh, an interesting counterpoint to the established story of early aquavite in Scotland within the court of King James IV.
We are delighted to announce a gift of £15,000 in funding from Chivas Brothers, a company with historic connections to Aberdeen and which owns some of Scotland’s most famous distilleries including The Glenlivet and Aberlour. That gift will fund new research into the still and associated stories in the ARO.